Friday 31 March 2023

In defence of the midwit

You have probably seen the midwit meme on social media. It often looks something like this...

The idea is to mock people who have overly complicated or counterintuitive takes. You know, the sort of person who claims "hot drinks cool you down on a hot day".

I remember first hearing about this during the pandemic with the criticism being that the government were effectively trying to play the "clever clever" midwit approach that defied basic common sense.

My view, however, is that the sort of person who gets called a midwit has three important features going for them: accepts things can be complex and counterintuitive, has a deference to expertise, and are more open to changing their mind.

The first thing to note is that some things are counterintuitive and complicated. I could easily create something that looks like a standard midwit meme but the midwit has the right take.

Trying to convince people that transport doesn't take up much of the CO2 involved in food production is hard for a number of reasons.

When you imagine carbon emissions, the first thing that comes to mind is probably something like exhaust fumes. Fumes are smelly and dirty. So it isn't difficult to associate them with something that is a bad thing. When you think about buying food, you know the food has to get there via some sort of transport that spews out these fumes. Buying food from New Zealand is really far away, so you would expect it to produce more fumes. All of these arguments are easy to buy and the logic is easy to follow.

The thing is, most people don't really have a good idea in what is involved in food production. Any guesses as to how much energy it takes to provide water or fertilisers for certain crops and animals? Or what about the different crop yields you can obtain from different types of land? This creates a much more fuzzy picture in your mind so any argument that involves these steps is going to be harder to buy. It is a classic case of vibes rather than size.

The second thing the midwit has going for it is deference to expertise. This is certainty not an in vogue view in what I see going around the wonks on twitter, and for good reason. Accepting what experts say uncritically leads to all sorts of problems, and this was especially so during the pandemic with all the behavioural science stuff and overconfident takes.

Yet on balance, I think trusting and deference to experts is probably better than being critical of them as a default position. For the most part, the people who are sceptical of experts are usually people that have already decided what their prior view is and are hard to convince about anything: think lockdown sceptics etc.

This all leads me to my last point which is that as the midwit can accept counterintuitive and complex takes, as well as deferring to experts, they should be more open to changing ones mind. For example, convincing someone that hot tea doesn't in fact make cool you down on a hot day is far easier than convincing them that distance still matters for trade in the service sector.

So, to summarise my view:

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